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Prospects in NCAA spotlight tonight

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers
Rangers prospect Derek Stepan, a 2008 draft pick, already has a World Junior Championship title this year. Now he has a chance to add an NCAA ring to his quickly growing hardware collection.
The Kreider Watch

The McDonagh/Stepan Watch
Trio Reaches Frozen Four

By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com

A year ago, current Rangers defenseman Matt Gilroy won the NCAA hockey championship with Boston University, when the Terriers staged a miraculous rally to beat Miami University in the Frozen Four title game. The victory capped off a tremendous college career for Gilroy, a four-year run that included the Hobey Baker Award as the NCAA's top player.

When Gilroy was enjoying all that success last year, the undrafted defenseman was not yet part of the Rangers organization. He signed with the Blueshirts shortly after winning the NCAA championship and is one of two current players -- along with captain Chris Drury -- who own NCAA rings.

Tonight at Ford Field in Detroit, three Rangers prospects -- including two of the team's own draft picks -- will take the first step toward what could bring them their own rings. Based on the Frozen Four draw, it's also possible that all three will be playing in the championship game on Saturday evening.

Indeed, Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh and Chris Kreider all have a chance to make some history this weekend as the first Rangers prospects/draft picks in 17 years to win an NCAA championship. The last one to do it was Jason Weinrich, the younger brother of longtime NHL defenseman Eric Weinrich, who won the title with Maine in 1993. Jason Weinrich, a 1990 sixth-round draft pick, never made it to the NHL, however.

Stepan, a 2008 Rangers second-round pick and captain of gold medalist Team USA at the 2010 World Junior Championship tournament, will skate for the University of Wisconsin along with McDonagh in tonight's first game against the Cinderella team from Rochester Institute of Technology at 5 p.m.

The 19-year-old center has emerged as one of the top prospects in the Rangers system and was ranked No. 16 by The Hockey News in its annual Future Watch rankings. He is the highest-ranked Blueshirts prospect since current Rangers defenseman Marc Staal landed at No.6 in 2007.

After a remarkable sophomore year that saw him jump from 24 points as a freshman to 50 points so far in 2009-10, Stepan was one of the top players in college hockey this past season. He solidified his standing as one of the top prospects in hockey by averaging two points per game at the World Juniors.

Stepan is also the first Rangers draft pick whose father was also drafted by the team. Brad Stepan, selected in the fifth round of the 1985 draft, was a junior teammate of Adam Graves in 1986-87 and spent one season in the Rangers' minor-league system in 1988-89.

McDonagh, a defenseman chosen by Montreal in the first round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, came to the Rangers last summer in the trade that sent Scott Gomez to the Habs. Known more for his defense than his offense, the Wisconsin junior is an intimidating presence on the blue line who managed career-highs this season with 13 assists and 17 points.

Wisconsin comes into the Frozen Four ranked No. 5 in the nation in the USA Today/USA Hockey men's college poll and will heavy favorites tonight against an RIT team that isn't even in the top 15.

Kreider, the Blueshirts' first-round pick last June, is part of the Boston College team ranked No. 2 in the college poll. The Eagles, who advanced to the Frozen Four by beating North Dakota and Yale in last weekend's regional round, will face 2009 NCAA runner-up Miami tonight at 8:30 p.m. Miami is ranked No. 1 in the nation and has the added incentive of winning a title for the late Brendan Burke, their popular team manager who was killed in an auto accident earlier this year -- shortly before his father, Brian Burke, went off to serve as Team USA's General Manager at the Olympics.

Although he came from one of the lowest tiers of New England prep school hockey, Kreider has proven he is a budding star at the college level. He is the No. 22 prospect on The Hockey News Future Watch, largely because of his dominant goal-scoring performance at the 2010 World Juniors.

Kreider's greatest upside has shown itself during the second half of his Boston College season, following his return from the World Juniors, where he scored six goals in seven games. Through his first 15 games of the season, Kreider had managed only two goals and three assists. Since returning from the tournament in Saskatchewan, however, he has strung together 12 goals and four assists in 12 games. That includes three multi-point games and a six-game point streak from Feb. 14 to March 5.

A remarkable individual talent known for highlight-reel scoring plays, Kreider is still looking for his first goal in the NCAA tournament, since he was held scoreless in the Northeast Regionals at Worcester, Mass. In last month's Hockey East title game against Maine, Kreider had two assists to help BC win a 7-6 overtime thriller. He had four total points in the last two Hockey East tournament games.

Both of tonight's Frozen Four semifinal games will air on ESPN2. The championship game will air on ESPN Saturday at 7 p.m.
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